Wyoming School District Stalls On Transgender Student Policy

May 19, 2016
Originally published on May 20, 2016 6:11 am
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There are no schools in Wyoming that have a policy protecting transgender students. In Laramie, the district has been working to formulate one. But Wyoming Public Radio's Aaron Schrank reports that with the national debate that's happening, a local policy may be off.

AARON SCHRANK, BYLINE: At a recent school board meeting in Laramie, high school senior Rihanna Kelver showed up with a call to action.

RIHANNA KELVER: As soon as we lose a student by the 50 percent rate suicide that transgender youth face, the blood will be on our hands.

SCHRANK: Eighteen-year-old Kelver, who came out as transgender two years ago, helped craft a proposed transgender student policy. She's been a living, breathing rebuttal to those who dismissed that policy as a solution in search of a problem.

KELVER: A couple of people opened with - who is this policy even helping? So it was kind of nice to be able to stand up and say, hey, I'm right here.

SCHRANK: Two different versions of transgender accommodation policies have been debated in Laramie. The biggest difference between the two is that one require students to use the bathrooms that match their biological sex. But after the legal dustup in North Carolina, the school board decided it wasn't the right time to move forward with either.

KELVER: They were worried about litigation on either side.

SCHRANK: Kelver's petitioning the board to pass the one that would guarantee she could use the girls' restroom and says it can't wait. That's why she decided to run for a seat on the school board herself.

KELVER: I understand peoples' concerns, but it's the transgender community who is being victimized here.

SCHRANK: Restrooms play a role in that victimization. For two years, Kelver was relegated to one single-stall bathroom in her school's special ed. wing

KELVER: Most of my classes were actually in the other wing. And so it was constantly having to travel there. And eventually, I just kind of stopped using it more and more, which brought up some serious health issues.

SCHRANK: Like repeated bladder infections. Last month, after some negotiations, she started using the girls' bathrooms. Every Tuesday, Kelver eats lunch with her school's LGBT club. She's president and says safety is a concern in the group.

KELVER: There are times that I can be uncertain of whether I'm going to walk out of a situation just because I'm transgender.

SCHRANK: Many club members are excited about Kelver's school board candidacy, like sophomore Annika Pelkey.

ANNIKA PELKEY: I'm so proud of her, like, she's already been so active in. And she's just the most hard-working person I know, basically, and I think that she would be amazing for it.

SCHRANK: Faculty sponsor of the club William Plumb says he's really seen the need for a policy.

WILLIAM PLUMB: We've had students who chose not to transition because there was nothing in place or they felt that there was no support.

JUBAL YENNIE: We don't need anything going forward.

SCHRANK: Laramie superintendent Jubal Yennie says now that the federal government has issued guidance to schools, a local policy would be overkill.

YENNIE: So if we'd had this guidance a year ago, the policy conversation wouldn't have come up.

SCHRANK: State leaders here in Wyoming have condemned that federal guidance as overreach, but Yennie says it's helpful. He says it makes clear that gender identity should be protected under existing nondiscrimination laws, known as Title IX...

YENNIE: ...Which says that we cannot discriminate because of race, creed, age, religion, sex, national origin. OK, we have no policies on any of those, yet we know how to deal with those.

SCHRANK: Yennie says until a court weighs in differently, he'll address the needs of transgender students on a case-by-case basis, using that guidance, but transgender highschooler Rihanna Kelver says that's not good enough.

KELVER: It would be a case-by-case for everything. You have to file a Title IX complaint. You have to have a hearing and all that.

SCHRANK: Kelver says an explicit policy could signal to the whole community that transgender students deserve respect. She hopes to keep making that case as a school board member. If elected, she would be the first openly transgender public official in Wyoming. For NPR News, I'm Aaron Schrank in Laramie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.